The grey whale of Baja California (Eschrichtius robustus) is a mammal of the cetacean order. They are relatives of dolphins and porpoises, and like all members in this order, they use echolocation (or biosonar) to communicate and navigate.An adult specimen is usually about 14 meters long and can weigh up to 30 or 40 tons. The gray whale belongs to the group of baleen whales to which the blue whale, the humpback whale and the right whale also belong.
For nourishment they use baleen, specialized comb-like structures made of keratin that are attached to the jaws, to filter the tiny marine organisms they collect from the ocean floor.
The lateral folds allow the mouth to swell while filling it with water and then, thanks to its powerful muscles, they shoot the water through the vent, the large hole that they have on the head, while they keep the food particles in the mouth.
The Greatest Migration
Gray whales spend their summers (from July to September) in the cold and nutritious waters of the Arctic, in the North Pacific. As winter approaches, they undertake the journey that constitutes the greatest migration that is known of mammals.
They complete the trip in less than two months, swimming non-stop for more than 10,000 kilometers to the coastal lagoons of the Baja California peninsula.
In December, once they have reached the lagoons, courtship and mating begin and females that are pregnant from the previous year give birth to their young.
Newborns are around 4 meters long and weigh up to 600 kilos; they can gain up to 40 kilos a day, thanks to their mothers’ milk, which is high in fat.
There are several reasons why the lagoons of Baja California are perfect for this wonderful natural event: they are surrounded by warm desert lands and thanks to the sun and dry air, the water evaporates rapidly from the surface, increasing salinity and consequently, the buoyancy force. This is an important feature for newborns because the ease of floating helps them learn to swim and their mothers can finally relax after the long journey.
The lagoons also, thanks to their shallow depth, protect them from orcas, their main predators.
Between February and March, the males head north again while the females and the young remain in the lagoons until April and then return to the cold Arctic waters. Mothers and their little ones travel in the midst of other females to keep company and protect themselves from orcas. When the little ones begin their first migration, they may have reached 6 meters long.
A long history: from slaughter to gray whale protection policies
In the Pacific Ocean, there are two different populations of gray whales. On the one hand, there are those of the north-western Pacific, whose migratory path goes from the Arctic in summer to the South China Sea in winter and which, unfortunately, are still in danger. On the other, those of the north-eastern Pacific, which belong to the luckiest community of gray whales in California and which today, fortunately, are safe. It has not always been this way.
Slaughtered almost to extinction for their meat and fat used as a fuel source, gray whales were abused for a long time.
At one point, they were even called “devils” because of their tendency to collide with whalers and attempt to sink them when attacked or when their young were in danger.
In 1857, whale hunter Charles Scammon surprised several specimens in a lagoon in northern Baja California (La Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or, Scammon’s Lagoon).
For the next 12 years, the slaughter continued and decimated the whale population (it is estimated that of 30,000 specimens, only 2,000 remained) until hunting in these lagoons ceased to be profitable.
Friendly whales of Baja California
It was a fisherman from San Ignacio, José Francisco Mayoral, known as Pachico, who kindly first approached a gray whale in 1972.
When he returned to San Ignacio, he enthusiastically narrated how the gray whales seemed to have greeted him, but no one believed him. However, the stories began to travel quickly, and after that, several fishermen had similar experiences. They reported that various whales had played with them by rubbing themselves on boats and vessels.
Around 1980, driven by curiosity, diverse scientists began to study this lagoon. The whales approached and showed an apparent desire for human contact and became known as friendly.
Today, it is not uncommon for a whale to push its calf towards a small boat of excited human beings, eager to caress and even kiss them. Gray whales, like humans, are very curious and the most incredible thing is, that sometimes it seems that there is an exchange in which they are all observers and observed at the same time.
The calves usually take a while to understand the situation; they swim around the boats and then emerge in the water, heading towards us with their huge eyes that these big creatures have, leaving us stunned, incredulous and moved. Reaching out and touching this rubbery mammal is a magical and unforgettable experience, difficult to describe in words.
Whale Sanctuary Project
In 1972, the Mexican government declared the lagoons the “Sanctuaries of the whales”.
In 1988, the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve was created, being the largest protected area in Mexico that includes this system of lagoons.
In the last 20 years, more than 12,000 gray whale calves have come to the world in the lagoons of Baja California and during the 2014-2015 season, 2,652 specimens were sighted.
To avoid any inconvenience, the Mexican government gives special permits only to ecotourism companies that, during the winter months, offer whale watching tours. To protect them and reduce any interference in their arrival, access to the lagoons is not granted until January 1st of each year.
This gives the whales time to mate and give birth to their young, avoiding any possible incident with humans. The number of boats that have access is very limited, navigation is limited to a few observation areas and the behavior of the agents is carefully regulated.
A New Danger
To the north of Guerrero Negro is the largest salt mine in the world and today, it is owned by Mitsubishi, the Japanese multinational.
In 1994, ESSA (the owner company) proposed to build a new salt mine on the shore of the San Ignacio Lagoon. It was an even bigger project than the one in Guerrero Negro; it envisaged 16 diesel pumps to draw the water from the lagoon, a one-mile dock stretched out in the Pacific to load the salt directly onto the transport ships, and miles and miles of channels that had to go through the desert and the Biosphere Reserve.
Fortunately, the communities most affected by the project rejected it, stating that the presence of water pumps and machines would have harmed not only gray whales, but also other species that cross those waters.
The battle lasted six years, mainly against Mitsubishi, but requests to the government were ignored and the local population had to ask for help from various Mexican and international environmental organizations.
Save the Whales
At that point, environmentalists launched an international awareness campaign that included letters, a boycott of Mitsubishi products, and a media campaign titled “Save the Whales” in which several international celebrities participated who flocked to the lagoon to save the gray whales.
In 2000, at the height of the conflict, President Ernesto Zedillo went to the lagoon with his family to better understand what had triggered the revolt and to meet the now famous whales in Baja California. Minutes after arriving at the observation area, a baby whale approached his boat and leaned over, Zedillo’s wife kissed the little whale on the nose, and she burst into tears.
Probably at that time, Zedillo, who had not responded to requests from the community, found himself in a corner. Five days later, when he returned to the capital, he gave a press conference to announce that the saline project had been completed and that, as a national heritage, the lagoon would be protected from development and, consequently, from invasive projects such as the one proposed by ESSA.
This decision gave Zedillo the opportunity to keep his name (and who knows, perhaps his marriage as well) because it would have been unacceptable for him, 100% Mexican like the gray whales of Baja California, to endanger the national natural heritage.
In 2005, five NGOs formed the LSI Conservation Alliance. Thanks to the donations, the Alliance has been able to save many kilometers of coastline in the southern part of the lagoon.
In 2006, the Mexican government decreed the protection of 65,000 acres of federal land along the western coast. The Alliance is currently trying to raise funds to protect the other 174,000 acres on the north shore of the lagoon that belong to Ejido Emiliano Zapata.
The final objective is to protect the entire territory of the lagoon coast for future generations, prohibiting urban and industrial construction but allowing sustainable projects with low ecological impact.